Sunday, June 1, 2014

Easy Dying; Hard Comedy: A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST


Seth MacFarlane must think you’re stupid. For A Million Ways to Die in the West, his second feature film, the creator of the nauseating cartoon Family Guy and the so-so R-rated teddy-bear comedy Ted has written and directed a Western comedy that assumes you have only a passing familiarity at best with the genre and with the history of the American frontier. The screenplay, a loose collection of often ugly comedy conceits strung along a fairly standard Western plot, is written from a detached angle to the material, filled with characters who stand back and explain the context of the jokes. This is how a town in Arizona got ice shipped from Boston. Here’s the level of medical care a frontier town could expect. Did you know people don’t smile in old pictures? Did you know there were a lot of deadly dangers in the Wild West? There’s a condescension here that assumes you won’t get the jokes, such as they are. It’s a movie made for people who snicker at old movies for no other reason than because they’re from another time.

Stuck in approach somewhere between Lawrence Kasdan’s grinning revival Silverado and Mel Brooks’ anything-goes satire Blazing Saddles, MacFarlane’s film is at once a smirking know-it-all comedy and a somewhat earnest attempt to do a Western. The plot is simple. It’s 1882 in Old Stump, Arizona. A poor sheep farmer (MacFarlane, giving himself the lead) is left by his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) and soon starts courting the beautiful stranger (Charlize Theron) who happens to ride into town. Unbeknownst to him, she’s the wife of the region’s most terrifying gunfighter (Liam Neeson). That’s the skeleton of a fine Western plot, and it’s carried along by expansive widescreen photography from Michael Barrett and a classically trumpeting score by Joel McNeely sounding a lot like what Max Steiner or Dimitri Tiomkin would’ve done in the genre’s heyday. But every time a character speaks, it’s with a clattering, colloquial modern speaking tone that’s ironic, smarmy, and simply not funny.

Patient zero for this flat, desperately unfunny performative patter is MacFarlane, who delivers his own writing with the enervating energy of an overeager standup. He’s impressed with himself, convinced his subpar quips and lazy observations are hilarious. He’s not charming. He’s smug. His character is disconnected, standing aside from even his castmates. He’s given long scenes in which he stands apart, mugging for the camera as he makes fun of 1800’s fashion, medicine, politics, transportation, and technology from a vaguely know-something modern perspective, nothing a high school freshman who half paid attention to history class couldn’t snark. It’s impossible to take him seriously as a person in this story, which is too bad considering the nearly two-hour movie has him in every scene. I simply couldn’t get invested in a whiny, inconsistent character who is barely invested in the plot himself. He keeps giving the whole production the side-eye, as if he knows more than he does and feels so very self-satisfied about it.

Meanwhile, there are real actors around him who at times make his (and Family Guy co-conspirators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild’s) repetitive and insulting writing seem almost palatable. Theron’s a welcome presence, transforming a decorative plot device into something like a character. Neeson for the most part retains his dignity, assuming that’s a stunt butt that gets a daisy stuck in it, as he seemingly gallops in from a serious Western. Elsewhere, Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi are trapped in a gross-out subplot that plays like bad knockoff Farrelly brothers, with a prostitute and her fiancĂ© “waiting for marriage,” but they almost make it work. The only person who gets the peculiar tone of the picture exactly right is Neil Patrick Harris, playing a mustachioed jerk wringing every bit of possible enjoyment out of his every appearance. He has to play a scene where he suffers a fit of diarrhea in the middle of the street, catching his runny excrement in his floppy cowboy hat. And he almost makes it work.

MacFarlane is a stunted, juvenile gag writer who expects to get laughs out of edgy material, but fails to shape jokes with thought or artistry. It’s a flat, stiff production that can barely set up a decent sight gag. Characters are placed in front of the camera, barely move, and talk at each other in bad sitcom asides. Periodically they blurt out references to horrible subject matter – racism, misogyny, domestic violence, murder, rape, child abuse – and MacFarlane assumes the shock will get a laugh. The movie is casually dismissive and/or actively hateful to women, Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese, Jews, and Muslims. Sometimes the racism is cut with the smug white guy in the center of it all pulling ain’t-I-a-stinker? faces. A “Runaway Slave” carnival shooting game has targets that are big-lipped, wide-eyed blackface images chowing down on a slice of watermelon. Two Chinese men wear rice-paddy hats and sport Fu Manchus. A character jokes he’s going to recite his “Islamic death chant” and proceeds to ululate gibberish.

You can’t have your aggressive stereotyping and hate speech and wave it off, too. So what if (only sometimes) MacFarlane turns to another character and says, “Um, isn’t that racist?” It is. But then what, exactly, are we supposed to be laughing at? The movie comes across as stubbornly created from the perspective of a narrow-minded, privileged, rich white male tittering at anything beyond his immediate frame of reference. Words have meaning. Images have power. MacFarlane knows what buttons to push, but fails to truly grapple with, subvert, or defuse their impact. As director, he can barely stage a High Noon shootout, saloon brawl, surreal drug trip, or musical number with any clarity or consistency. No wonder he can’t even begin to figure out how to frame or otherwise handle hot-button issues.

He wants laughs, and I truly believe you can craft a good joke out of any topic, but he goes about it in exactly the wrong way. This is comedy filmmaking at its most cheap, lazy, and unthinking. Are we supposed to laugh because he went there, or does he actually think he’s being clever? The writing is either offensive or groan-worthy. The gross-out anatomical gags are just gross. Cameos (Christopher Lloyd? Ewan McGregor? Ryan Reynolds?) are merely random nothings. The violence is flatly presented and full of miscalculated gore. A face bloodily squished by a brick of ice isn’t exactly a fun pratfall. At best, the movie is either unfunny or incompetent, a pleasant and vacant experience. But when it’s bad, it’s odious.

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